US Steps Up Airport Screening for Omicron Cases

Ralph Ellis

December 01, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The federal government has increased surveillance at four international airports in the United States to detect cases of the Omicron variant that might be brought into the country by international travelers.

The enhanced screening will be put into place at airports in New York, Atlanta, Newark, and San Francisco, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said Tuesday, according to The New York Times.

"This program allows for increased Covid testing for specific international arrivals, increasing our capacity to identify those with Covid-19 on arrival to the United States," she said.

Walensky said other steps may be taken to screen travelers, such testing for the virus closer to departure of a traveler's flight and requiring extra testing and quarantining after a traveler arrives, The Times said.

The CDC is also working with airlines in case the variant is discovered and contact tracing is needed.

So far, no cases of the variant, first found in South Africa, have been detected in the U.S., but Walensky and other health officials have said it's inevitable it will show up.

The federal government recently banned incoming foreign nationals who have been in one of eight southern African nations in the last 14 days.

Scott Becker, chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told Reuters that increasing the use of technology to distinguish Omicron cases from Delta variant cases is crucial.

Becker said a molecular test can detect a genetic mutation that indicates the sample is not from the Delta variant and therefore should undergo further sequencing, he said. Belgium and Israel are already using such technology, he said.

"It gives us a signal, and then those specimens that have it will immediately go for sequencing," Becker told Reuters.

Becker said some public labs performing COVID sequencing are already using this technology. He said about 93,000 COVID tests are run weekly in the United States, with public labs performing 15,000-20,000 of those tests.

Sources

The New York Times. "Federal health officials say that they are expanding the search for Omicron in the U.S."

Reuters. "U.S. steps up search for Omicron variant in domestic COVID-19 cases"

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